This article appeared in the edition of January 26, 2023 of Movie commentary Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film reviews and writing. Subscribe to the Letter here.
The Super 8 years (Annie Ernaux and David Ernaux-Briot, 2022)
Annie Ernaux, the last winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, made a film with her son. This sentence is technically true, but Super 8 year oldswhich received its general release two months after the Nobel Prize was announced in October, looks like a work by Annie Ernaux proper – not a collaboration with others, not an adaptation from one medium to another, but a translation of his writing from text to speech, including the author’s voiceover, and (if, like me, you watched the film with English subtitles) back to the text. This does not mean that the images of Super 8 year olds– drawn from family films shot by the late ex-husband of the author, Philippe Ernaux, and assembled by David Ernaux-Briot – are incidental. Images are never incidental in Ernaux’s writing.
In fact, the filmThe visuals of , shot between 1972 and 1981, representing the author (in her thirties), her mother, her in-laws and her two sons (entering adolescence) will seem strangely familiar to readers of Ernaux. These characters and scenes have figured elsewhere in his writing. In Years, his 2008 maximalist project, which collects the visual and verbal data of the circumstances of his life in print, Ernaux describes the filmThe first images of: her and her sons returning from the grocery store. “They move their arms and legs in groups facing the camera, which they watch, their eyes now accustomed to the harsh light. No one is speaking. You could almost say they are posing for a photo that will never stop being taken.
Ernaux’s stories have previously incorporated descriptions of visual images – her parents’ wedding photo, a snapshot of herself as an 8-year-old on a pebble beach – but she has always maintained their status. lower. She wrote in 1987 A woman’s story, “This book can be considered a literary adventure because its purpose is to discover the truth about my mother, a truth that can only be conveyed by words. (Neither the photographs, nor my own memories, nor even the reminiscences of my family cannot bring me this truth.) The Super 8 year olds, she says of the speechless images: “it took words to make sense of this silent time.” Photographs, moving and motionless, were the supports of Ernaux’s writing. They are his memory aids, his frequent muses and the models of his curious denotative grammar. In The Super 8 year olds, they are also the limiting conditions of his narration, framing its beginning (when Philippe Ernaux buys the camera) and its end (when he takes the camera with him after the couple divorce). The film suspends the spectator in this limited time, before he was so well known.
In the pages of her very self-aware works, Ernaux variously described her writing as “flat”, “neutral”, “in the style of a testimony”, and a “list and description of…facts”. She pursues objectivity, forced to “tear [herself] from the subjective point of view”, rejecting “irony, pathos and nostalgia” as departures from the “external proof of … existence”. By abandoning subjectivity – or trying to keep it at bay – Ernaux does not pass himself off as the journalist of his own life. Rather, it works to record in language the feeling of having been at a certain period of his life, a subjective experience of the past, as objectively as possible. It is this past experience that she wants to preserve and protect from the contaminating effects (ironic, pathetic, nostalgic) of hindsight.
The grammar of photography – what Roland Barthes famously called its appearance “having been there” – is a clear analog to that of Ernaux’s project. Just as the camera and its subjects were indisputably the to the scene that the photo captures, testifying to its appearance, Ernaux also the child in Yvetot in the café-grocery store of his parents (A man’s place1983), and the in the passage Cardinet in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, where she had an illegal abortion in 1963 (Event, 2000). Throughout her books, Ernaux relies on photographs to help her reproduce this quasi-documentary idiom in prose, but the images she describes in writing are not just the physical photographs or celluloid projections. which she has stored in her personal archives. His work is not always – or not only – ekphrastic. She also strives to articulate what Proust calls the “mental images” that these physical images can help evoke: the scenes of daily life, sometimes banal, often violent, which pierce the memory to the present of the mind’s eye.
Barthes and Proust are the Virgils of Ernaux through the thickets of personal memory, and his masters in the art of storytelling. Constantly negotiating the folly and the limits of her own project, Ernaux presents herself as both cheeky and disciplined, both an intrepid time traveler and an assiduous student of French literature. She counts her intellectual debts: not only to Barthes and Proust but to the experimental fictions of New Novelists (Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Robert Pinget); the autobiographical essays of ethnographer and surrealist poet Michel Leiris; the inert “written writing” of Albert Camus; and the philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir and Simone Weil. While this all sounds terribly abstract and a bit esoteric, Ernaux’s writing, including his voice-over script for Super 8 year olds– is not. His sources, even nominative ones, provide only a base for the flat surface of his writing, which owes as much to minor forms of documentation – private diaries and scrapbooks, traditionally feminine genres – as to these major and often macho works of Theory .
Philippe Ernaux’s amateur films fall somewhere between these poles. This is a minor form wielded with the authority of what Ernaux’s voiceover calls “chief director” – a role she “left to him without protest because [she] feared poor handling of the equipment, very expensive at the time, and perhaps too much because of a gendered division of labor introduced at the beginning of [their] life together.” This division of labor – Philippe, the viewer, and Annie, the watched – unsurprisingly informs us about what we see and how we see it. Philippe’s films present the Ernaux children unwrapping presents on Christmas morning , blowing out birthday candles and accompanying their parents on vacation.These images are generic and indescribable – ritualized scenes for which an otherwise absent father might reasonably be present, and advertisements for a nuclear family who, through the film‘s end, we learn was finally legally dissolved.
Ernaux’s books usually tell stories with built-in endings: deaths, affairs, abortions, and, most often, weddings. The denouement looms as time passes through its stories, through the images that hold its relentless passage in suspense. She draws these images from personal history, which sometimes intersects with world history (in capital letters in her writings). The sense of possibility evoked by these intersections – to feel in History – expressed with nostalgia in Super 8 year olds. The family travels to Chile to witness the country’s short-lived socialist reforms under President Salvador Allende (“The images we brought back were those of a country that no longer existed”); to communist Albania, where they were only allowed to move around and film in state-sanctioned movement zones; to post-Franco Spain; and in Soviet Moscow.
While Ernaux’s narration does not introduce irony or pathos into these scenes, the combination of image and text sometimes does. While her voice-over reports that, during the trip to Spain, she wrote in her diary: “I am superfluous in her life”, the Super 8 projections cut a bull, killed without mercy and dragged from an arena to the feet of a matador. In Moscow, the Ernaux’s failing marriage is portrayed in a down-to-earth manner – “The family unit collapsed the following year” – against images of a Union which, too, will crumble within the decade. The viewer might wait for Ernaux to break off in these moments – to punish herself, as she so often does in her books, for introducing judgments after the fact. But she doesn’t. Instead, she lets the editing – and the layering of image and sound – generate commentaries and relationships between story and History that could only happen in hindsight, in the auditorium. assembly.
Ernaux’s writing is most striking when it functions as a photograph, suspending the reader between moments in time (between “then” and “now”) and between alienating sensations of identity (between “me” and “not me”; subject and object; me and my image). In Yearsshe calls her style in prose the “mirror image” of photography. The Super 8 years old extends the analogy, the text and the image asymptotically reaching horizons of time in perpetual motion: from the present to the receding past, from the past to the inescapable present. It tells the story of an end – the end of a marriage; the end of an era in history, if not the end of History, which is never really over. After all, it still hangs in memory, in writing, and on film.
Anna Schechtman is a Klarman Scholar at Cornell University, where she will start as an Assistant Professor of English Literature in 2024. Her independent essays and reviews have appeared in the new yorker, The New York Book Review, art forumand The Los Angeles Book Reviewwhere she is editor-in-chief.